Welsh mythology

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Welsh mythology is the mythology of the Welsh people. It consists partly of folk traditions developed in Wales, and partly of traditions developed by Britons elsewhere before the end of the first millennium. Some of this contains remnants of the mythology of pre-Christian Britain, surviving in much altered form in medieval Welsh manuscripts such as the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, the Book of Aneirin, and the Book of Taliesin.

The prose stories from the White and Red Books are known as the Mabinogion, a title given to them by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest, and also used by subsequent translators. Poems such as Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees) and mnemonic list-texts like the Welsh Triads and the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain, also contain mythological material. These texts also include the earliest forms of the Arthurian legend and the traditional history of post-Roman Britain.

Other sources include the 9th century Latin historical compilation Historia Britonum (the History of the Britons) and Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century Latin chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae (the History of the Kings of Britain), as well as later folklore, such as The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas [1908].

Welsh history, before the Romans, was learned orally by the Druids on fifteen-year apprenticeships.[citation needed] Due to invasions by many, including the Romans and Saxons, history and mythology are confused due to the lack of written sources.

Legends[edit]

Four Branches of the Mabinogi[edit]

The Two Kings (sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, 1984) near Harlech Castle, Wales. Bendigeidfran carries the body of his nephew Gwern.

Most mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection are collectively titled The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which concentrate largely on the exploits of various British deities who have been Christianised into kings and heroes. The only character to appear in every branch is Pryderi fab Pwyll, the king of Dyfed, who is born in the first Branch, is killed in the fourth, and is probably a reflex of the Celtic god Maponos.[1] The only other recurring characters are Pryderi's mother Rhiannon, associated with the peaceful British prince Manawydan, who later becomes her second husband. Manawyadan and his siblings Bendigeidfran, Branwen and Efnysien are the key players of the second branch, while the fourth branch concerns itself with the exploits of the family of Dôn, which includes the wizard Gwydion, his nephew Lleu and his sister Arianrhod.

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed[edit]

The first branch tells of how Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, exchanges places for a year with Arawn, the ruler of Annwn (the underworld), defeats Arawn's enemy Hafgan, and on his return encounters Rhiannon, a beautiful maiden whose horse cannot be caught up with. He manages to win her hand at the expense of Gwawl, to whom she is betrothed, and she bears him a son, but the child disappears soon after his birth. Rhiannon is accused of killing him and forced to carry guests on her back as punishment. The child has been taken by a monster, and is rescued by Teyrnon and his wife, who bring him up as their own, calling him Gwri of the Golden hair, until his resemblance to Pwyll becomes apparent. They return him to his real parents, Rhiannon is released from her punishment, and the boy is renamed Pryderi.

Branwen ferch Llŷr[edit]

In the second branch, Branwen, sister of Bendigeidfran (Brân the Blessed), king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen's half-brother Efnisien insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses, but Bendigeidfran gives him new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron which can restore the dead to life, in compensation. Matholwch and Branwen have a son, Gwern, but Matholwch proceeds to mistreat Branwen, beating her and making her a drudge. Branwen trains a starling to take a message to Bendigeidfran, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Bendigeidfran is so huge he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace, and build a house big enough to entertain Bendigeidfran, but inside they hang a hundred bags, telling Efnisien they contain flour, when in fact they conceal armed warriors. Efnisien kills the warriors by squeezing the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnisien throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnisien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Britons, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawyddan and Bendigeidfran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Bendigeidfran asks his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain. Branwen dies of grief on returning home. Five pregnant women survive to repopulate Ireland.

Manawydan fab Llŷr[edit]

Pryderi and Manawydan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi marries Cigfa and Manawydan marries Rhiannon. However, a mist descends on the land, leaving it empty and desolate. The four support themselves by hunting at first, then move to England where they make a living making saddles, shields and shoes of such quality that the local craftsmen cannot compete, and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. While hunting, a white boar leads them to a mysterious castle. Pryderi, against Manawydan's advice, goes inside, but does not return. Rhiannon goes to investigate and finds him clinging to a bowl, unable to speak. The same fate befalls her, and the castle disappears. Manawydan and Cigfa return to England as shoemakers, but once again the locals drive them out and they return to Dyfed. They sow three fields of wheat, but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawydan keeps watch over the third field, and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches their leader and decides to hang it. A scholar, a priest and a bishop in turn offer him gifts if he will spare the mouse, but he refuses. When asked what he wants in return for the mouse's life, he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees, because the mouse is in fact his wife. He has been waging magical war against Dyfed because he is a friend of Gwawl, whom Pwyll, Pryderi's father humiliated.

Math fab Mathonwy[edit]

While Pryderi rules Dyfed in south Wales, Gwynedd in north Wales is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy. His feet must be held by a virgin, except while he is at war. Math's nephew Gilfaethwy is in love with Goewin, his current footholder, and Gilfaethwy's brother Gwydion tricks Math into going to war against Pryderi so Gilfaethwy can have access to her. Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat, and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math marries Goewin to save her from disgrace, and banishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, transforming them into a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves. After three years they are restored to human form and return.

Math needs a new foot-holder, and Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod, but when Math magically tests her virginity, she gives birth to two sons. One, Dylan, immediately takes to the sea. The other child is raised by Gwydion, but Arianrhod tells him he will never have a name or arms unless she gives them to him, and refuses to do so. But Gwydion tricks her into naming him Lleu Llaw Gyffes ('Bright, of deft hand'), and giving him arms. She then tells him he will never have a wife of any race living on earth, so Gwydion and Math make him a wife from flowers, called Blodeuwedd (possibly 'Flower face', though other etymologies have been suggested). But Blodeuwedd falls in love with a hunter called Gronw Pebr, and they plot to kill Lleu. Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing the means by which he can be killed, but when Gronw attempts to do the deed, Lleu escapes, transformed into an eagle.

Gwydion finds Lleu and transforms him back into human form, and turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, renaming her Blodeuwedd and cursing her as well in the process. Gronw offers to compensate Lleu, but Lleu denies and insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. Gronw pleads to hide behind a rock when he attempts to kill him. Lleu agrees. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through the stone he is hiding behind.

Cad Goddeu[edit]

A large tradition seems to have once surrounded the Battle of the Trees, a mythological conflict fought between the sons of Dôn and the forces of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, and seemingly connected to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Amaethon, one of the sons of Don, steals a white roebuck and a whelp from Arawn, king of the otherworld, leading to a great battle.

Gwydion fights alongside his brother and, assisted by Lleu, enchants the "elementary trees and sedges" to rise up as warriors against Arawn's forces. The alder leads the attack, while the aspen falls in battle, and heaven and earth tremble before the oak, a "valiant door keeper against the enemy". The bluebells combine and cause a "consternation" but the hero is the holly, tinted with green.

A warrior fighting alongside Arawn cannot be vanquished unless his enemies can guess his name. Gwydion guesses the warrior's name, identifying him from the sprigs of alder on his shield, and sings two englyns:

"Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield

Native tales[edit]

The Dream of Macsen Wledig[edit]

See also: Magnus Maximus

This account is so different from Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Maximian (as Geoffrey calls him) in Historia regum Britanniae that scholars agree the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey's version. The Dream's account also seems to accord better with details in the Triads, so it perhaps reflects an earlier tradition.

Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. With much difficulty they find her in a rich castle in Britain, daughter of a chieftain based at Segontium (Caernarfon), and lead the Emperor to her. Everything he finds is exactly as in his dream. The maiden, whose name is Helen or Elen, accepts and loves him. Because Elen is found a virgin, Macsen gives her father sovereignty over the island of Britain and orders three castles built for his bride. In Macsen's absence, a new emperor seizes power and warns him not to return. With the help of men from Britain led by Elen's brother Conanus (Welsh: Kynan Meriadec, French: Conan Meriadoc), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany.

Lludd and Llefelys[edit]

Main article: Lludd and Llefelys

Another mythological story included in the Mabinogion collection is the tale of Lludd and Llefelys. Lludd is king of Britain, and his brother, Llefelys, is king of France. Lludd's kingdom is beset by three menaces: the Coraniaid, a demonic people who can hear everything; a terrible scream that is heard every May Eve that terrifies the people; and the continual disappearance of the provisions of the king's court. Lludd asks Llefelys for help, speaking to him through a brass tube so the Coraniaid can't hear. Llefelys creates a potion of crushed insects in water which destroys the Coraniaid when sprinkled on them. The scream, he discovers, comes from two dragons fighting. He gets the dragons drunk on mead and buries them in Dinas Emrys in what is now North Wales. He then overcomes the wizard who is stealing all of Lludd's provisions and makes him serve Lludd.

Hanes Taliesin[edit]

Guest included Hanes Taliesin in her translation of the Mabinogion, despite the absence of this tale from the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Subsequent scholarship has identified the tale as post-medieval; as such it is left out from most modern editions of the Mabinogion. Still, elements of the tale predate this presentation. This tale is distinct from the Book of Taliesin, which is a collection of poems attributed to Taliesin.

According to the story Taliesin began life as Gwion Bach, a servant to the enchantress Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and a horribly ugly son named Avagddu (elsewhere known as Morfran). Ceridwen determines to help her son by brewing a magic potion, the first three drops of which will give him the gift of wisdom and inspiration (awen). The potion has to be cooked for a year and a day, so Ceridwen enlists a blind man named Morda to tend the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stirs. Three hot drops spill onto Gwion's thumb as he stirred, and he instinctively puts his thumb in his mouth, instantly gaining wisdom and knowledge. The first thought that occurs to him is that Ceridwen will kill him, so he runs away.

Soon enough Ceridwen engages Gwion in a transformation chase in which they turn themselves into various animals – a hare and a greyhound, a fish and an otter, and a bird and a hawk. Exhausted, Gwion finally turns himself into a single grain of corn, but Ceridwen becomes a hen and eats him. Ceridwen becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth she throws the child into the ocean in a leather bag. The bag is found by Elffin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, who sees the boy's beautiful white brow and exclaims "dyma dal iesin" ("this is a radiant brow") Taliesin, thus named, begins to recite beautiful poetry.

Elffin raises Taliesin as his son, and the two become involved in several adventures. In the presence of Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, Elffin claims that his wife is as virtuous as the king's wife, and that Taliesin is a better bard than the king's. Maelgwn locks Elffin up and sends his boorish son Rhun to defile Elffin's wife and steal her ring as evidence. However, Taliesin has Elffin's wife replaced with a kitchen maid, thus preserving Elffin's claim. Taliesin then humiliates Maelgwn's bards with his skill, and frees his foster-father.

Arthurian Tales[edit]

Culhwch and Olwen[edit]

Main article: Culhwch and Olwen

While Culhwch and Olwen, also found in the Mabinogion collection, is primarily an Arthurian tale, in which the hero Culhwch enlists Arthur's aid in winning the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden the Giant, it is full of background detail, much of it mythological in nature. Characters such as Amaethon, the divine ploughman, Mabon ap Modron, the divine son, and the psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd make appearances, the latter in an endless seasonal battle with Gwythr ap Greidawl for the hand of Creiddylad. The conditions placed on Culhwch by his mother are similar to those placed on Lleu Llaw Gyffes by Arianrhod, and Culhwch's arrival at Arthur's court is reminiscent of the Irish god Lug's arrival at the court of king Nuada in Cath Maige Tuireadh.

Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain[edit]

The hero of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, is based on the historical figure Owain mab Urien. He appears as Ywain in later continental tradition. The romance consists of a hero marrying his love, the Lady of the Fountain, but losing her when he neglects her for knightly exploits. With the aid of a lion he saves from a serpent, he finds a balance between his marital and social duties and rejoins his wife. The narrative is related to Chrétien de Troyes' French romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion.

Peredur son of Efrawg[edit]

Main article: Peredur son of Efrawg

Like the other Welsh romances, scholars debate as to the work's exact relationship to Chrétien's poem. It is possible Peredur preserves some of the material found in Chrétien's source. The sequence of some events are altered in Peredur, and many original episodes appear, including the hero's 14-year sojourn in Constantinople reigning with the Empress, which contains remnants of a sovereignty tale. The Holy Grail is replaced with a severed head on a platter. Despite the differences, however, influence from the French romance cannot be discounted, particularly as its first part hardly matches the second.

As in Percival the hero's father dies when he is young, and his mother takes him into the woods and raises him in isolation. Eventually he meets a group of knights and determines to become like them, so he travels to King Arthur's court. There he is ridiculed by Cei and sets out on further adventures, promising to avenge Cei's insults to himself and those who defended him. While travelling he meets two of his uncles, the first plays the role of Percival's Gornemant and educates him in arms and warns him not to ask the significance of what he sees. The second replaces Chrétien's Fisher King, but instead of showing Peredur the Holy Grail he reveals a salver containing a man's severed head. The young knight does not ask about this and proceeds to further adventure, including a stay with the Nine Witches of Gloucester and the encounter with the woman who was to be his true love, Angharad Golden-Hand. Peredur returns to Arthur's court, but soon embarks on another series of adventures that do not correspond to material in Percival (Gawain's exploits take up this section of the French work.) Eventually the hero learns the severed head at his uncle's court belonged to his cousin, who had been killed by the Nine Witches of Gloucester. Peredur avenges his family, and is celebrated as a hero.

The narrative corresponds to Chrétien's romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail.

Geraint son of Erbin[edit]

Main article: Geraint and Enid

The romance concerns the love of Geraint, one of King Arthur's men, and the beautiful Enid. The couple marry and settle down together, but rumors spread that Geraint has gone soft. Upset about this, Enid cries to herself that she is not a true wife for keeping her husband from his chivalric duties, but Geraint misunderstands her comment to mean she has been unfaithful to him. He makes her join him on a long and dangerous trip and commands her not to speak to him. Enid disregards this command several times to warn her husband of danger. Several adventures follow that prove Enid's love and Geraint's fighting ability. The couple is happily reconciled in the end, and Geraint inherits his father's kingdom.

The narrative corresponds to Chrétien's Erec and Enide, in which the hero is Erec.

Preiddeu Annwfn[edit]

Main article: Preiddeu Annwfn

The Spoils of Annwfn is a cryptic early medieval poem of sixty lines found in the Book of Taliesin. The text recounts an expedition to the Otherworld, led by King Arthur, to retrieve a magical cauldron. The speaker relates how he journeyed with Arthur and three boatloads of men into Annwfn, but only seven returned. Annwfn is apparently referred to by several names, including "Mound Fortress," "Four-Peaked Fortress," and "Glass Fortress", though it is possible the poet intended these to be distinct places. Within the Mound Fort's walls Gweir, one of the "Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain" known from the Welsh Triads,[2] is imprisoned in chains. The narrator then describes the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn; it is finished with pearl and will not boil a coward's food. Whatever tragedy ultimately killed all but seven of them is not clearly explained. The poem continues with an excoriation of "little men" and monks, who lack in various forms of knowledge possessed by the poet.

Characters[edit]

The Welsh had been Christian for many centuries before their former mythology was written down, and their gods had long been transformed into kings and heroes of the past. Many of the characters who exhibit divine characteristics fall into two rival families, the Plant Dôn (Children of Dôn) and the Plant Llŷr (Children of Llŷr).

Children of Dôn[edit]

Dôn, daughter of Mathonwy, was the matriarch of one family. Her husband is never specifically named.

Gronw and Blodeuwedd

Other figures associated with the Children of Dôn include:

  • Math fab Mathonwy: Dôn's brother, a skilled wizard and king of Gwynedd. Appears prominently in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, as well as in the Welsh Triads and several instances of medieval Welsh verse.
  • Dylan: Firstborn son of Arianrhod, who "took on the nature of the sea" and "swam as well as the best fish that was within." He was killed by his uncle Gofannon. Appears in Math fab Mathonwy and in the Death Song of Dylan, found in the Book of Taliesin.
  • Lleu: Arianrhod's second son and Dylan's twin brother. Appears prominently in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, which describes his birth, marriage, death, resurrection, and ascension to the throne of Gwynedd, and is also mentioned in the Welsh Triads and in various medieval poems. He is a reflex of the Gaulish deity Lugus and cognate with the Irish god Lugh Lámhfhada.
  • Blodeuwedd: A beautiful woman created by Math and Gwydion from flowers as a wife for Lleu, whom she betrayed for her lover, Gronw. Gwydion turned her into an owl for her crimes. Appears in Math fab Mathonwy.
  • Gronw "the Radiant": The lord of Penllyn who plotted with Blodeuwedd to kill Lleu. Appears in Math fab Mathonwy.
Efnisien's self-sacrifice (image by T. Prytherch)

Children of Llŷr[edit]

Llŷr, the patriarch of the other family, is possibly a borrowing of the Irish sea-god Lír. A foreign origin is further suggested by his epithet Llediaith ("half-speech"). His wife was Penarddun. According to the Mabinogion she was the mother of his three children, plus two others by Eurosswydd. The Mabinogi name her as a daughter of Beli Mawr, though this may be an error for sister. Penarddun and Llŷr's children include:

  • Bendigeidfran (Bran the Blessed). He appears most prominently in Branwen ferch Llyr, in which is a giant and King of Britain. In the text he invades Ireland to come to the aid of his sister, who has suffered abuse at the hands of the Irish king Matholwch. He is killed in battle by a poisoned spear to the foot. His head was buried in London, and guarded Britain from foreign invasion until its unearthing by King Arthur some time later. Also appears frequently in medieval Welsh poetry, as well as in the Welsh Triads and Cad Goddeu. John T. Koch has suggested a number of parallels between Bendigeidfran and the historical Gaulish chieftain, Brennus, who invaded the Balkans in the third century B.C.
    • His son Caradog, who is left to defend Britain in his father's absence. He is killed when his uncle Caswallawn seizes his father's crown.
  • Manawydan, Bendigeidfran's younger brother, who fights alongside him in Ireland. He is one of only seven men to survive the final battle, and returns to live in Dyfed with fellow survivor Pryderi. He refuses to make his claim on the British throne which has been usurped by his cousin Caswallawn. He marries Rhiannon in the Third Branch, and rescues Dyfed from the enchantment of the malignant wizard Llwyd. He is widely considered to be cognate with the Irish sea god Manannán mac Lir.
  • Branwen, The family's only daughter. Her abuse at the hands of her husband Matholwch is the catalyst for a catastrophic war between Britain and Ireland which eventually leads to the deaths of three of her brothers, her son and her husband. She dies of a broken heart after witnessing the battle.
    • Her infant son Gwern, by Matholwch, who is murdered by his uncle Efnysien.

Other figures associated with the Children of Llŷr include:

  • Eurosswydd, the father of two other children by Pendarddun.
  • His sons Efnysien and Nisien, the former twisted, ruthless and sadistic, and largely responsible for the mutually destructive war against the Irish, the latter kind and gentle. Both are killed in the final battle, Efnysien having sacrificed himself to destroy the Cauldron of Rebirth which was granting the Irish the temporary victory.
  • Matholwch: King of Ireland, who married Branwen thus forging an alliance between his people and Bendigeidfran's. His mistreatment of his wife led to the British invasion and the eventual destruction of both nations. His death is never described in the narrative, but is implicit.

Kingdom of Dyfed[edit]

Rhiannon and Pryderi
  • Pwyll "Head of Annwn": The king of Dyfed and eponymous hero of the first branch of the Mabinogi. He swaps places with the otherworldly king Arawn for a year, earning his lifelong friendship, and later wins the lady Rhiannon from her suitor Gwawl.
  • Rhiannon: Sometimes associated with the horse goddess Epona. Ronald Hutton states that a horse is the only thing they have in common.[3] Following Pwyll's death at the end of the first branch, she marries Manawydan, the rightful heir to the throne.
  • Pryderi: Pwyll and Rhiannon's son, and the king of Dyfed following his father's death. He is the only character to appear in every branch, although with varying degrees of prominence. He fought under Bendigeidfran in Ireland in the second branch, was imprisoned by the magician Llwyd ap Cil Coed, and later rescued by his stepfather Manawydan in the third, and was killed in single combat against Gwydion in the fourth following the theft of his otherworldly pigs at the magician's hands. He is often equated with the divine son, Mabon ap Modron.
  • Cigfa, wife of Pryderi.
  • Teyrnon: The lord of Gwent in the service of Pwyll. He finds the infant Pryderi and raises him as his own, returning him to the Demetian court when he is of age. He is mentioned briefly in Culhwch ac Olwen.

Family of Beli Mawr[edit]

Beli Mawr is an ancestor figure mentioned in various sources. Though obscure as a character, several of the many descendants attributed to him figure strongly in Welsh tradition. Works derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae name him as a King of Britain. The Second Branch of the Mabinogi name Beli as the father of Penarddun, though this may be a mistake for brother.[4] Beli's more prominent children include:

  • Arianrhod. Usually said to be a daughter of Dôn, Triad 35 gives Beli as her father. Though no other source connects Arianrhod or her family to that of Beli, Rachel Bromwich notes the triad does not necessarily contradict the Mabinogion tradition.[5]
  • Caswallawn fab Beli. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, he seizes the throne from Caradog map Bran during Bendigeidfran's campaigns in Ireland. He appears briefly in the third branch when Manawydan, the rightful claimant, pays homage to him. A large tradition seems to have once surrounded Caswallawn, involving his wars against Julius Caesar and Rome, his love for the maiden Fflur and his eventual departure from Britain with 21,000 men, never to be seen again. Caswallawn is derived from the historical British king Cassivellaunus, who led an alliance of tribes against Caesar in the mid first century.
  • Lludd and Llefelys, Kings of Britain and Gaul, respectively. In accounts derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth and the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd becomes King of Britain following Caswallawn, and is responsible for rebuilding London and ridding the kingdom of three plagues that afflict the land with the help of his brother. He was probably the influence for Lud son of Heli, a British king who appears in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. He is also known under the name Nudd Llaw Ereint and is a reflex of the Celtic god Nodens. As Nudd, he is the father of several notable figures in Welsh mythology including:

Others[edit]

Arthurian characters[edit]

King Arthur[edit]

While Arthurian literature grew to become a broadly European phenomenon, the Welsh can claim the earliest appearances of Arthur. Before Arthur became an international figure, writings and oral tales concerning him were more or less restricted to the Brythonic nations of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. These tales in turn are divided roughly into Pre-Galfridian Traditions and those of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Wales also contributed to the Arthur of the Romance Tradition after the titular heir became an international sensation.

Pre-Galfridian texts[edit]

  • Y Gododdin includes a brief reference of a description of a warrior: "he was no Arthur"
  • Several poems of Taliesin: Kadeir Teyrnon ("The Chair of the Prince"), which refers to "Arthur the Blessed", Preiddeu Annwn ("The Spoils of the Annwn"), which recounts an expedition of Arthur to the Otherworld, and Marwnat vthyr pen[dragon] ("The Elegy of Uthyr Pen[dragon]"), which refers to Arthur's valour and is suggestive of a father-son relationship for Arthur and Uthyr that pre-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth.
  • From The Black Book of Carmarthen: Pa gur yv y porthaur? ("What man is the gatekeeper?") This takes the form of a dialogue between Arthur and the gatekeeper of a fortress he wishes to enter, in which Arthur recounts the names and deeds of himself and his men, notably Cei and Bedwyr.
  • The Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1100), included in the modern Mabinogion collection.
  • Arthur is referenced numerous times in the Welsh Triads, a collection of short summaries of Welsh tradition; Arthur's court has started to embody legendary Britain as a whole, with "Arthur's Court" sometimes substituted for "The Island of Britain" in the formula "Three XXX of the Island of Britain"
  • Historia Britonum: Chapter 56 discusses twelve battles fought and won by Arthur, here called dux bellorum (war leader) rather than king.
  • Annales Cambriae contains entries on Arthur, Medrod and Merlin (Myrddin): Year 72 (c. 516) The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors; Year 93 (c. 537) The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell [and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.] Text in brackets not in MSS. B or C.; Year 129 (c. 573) The Battle of Arfderydd (Armterid, A; Erderit, B; Arderit, C) [between the sons of Elifer, and Guendoleu son of Keidau; in which battle Guendoleu fell; and Merlin (Merlinus) went mad.] Text in brackets found only in MS. B.
  • Several Saints's Lives: Arthur features in a number of well known vitae ("Lives") of post-Roman saints. Life of Saint Gildas, written in the early 12th century by Caradoc of Llancarfan; of Saint Cadoc, written around 1100 or a little before by Lifris of Llancarfan; medieval biographies of Carannog, Padarn and Eufflam, probably written around the 12th century; a less obviously legendary account of Arthur appears in the Legenda Sancti Goeznovii, which is often claimed to date from the early 11th century; William of Malmesbury's De Gestis Regum Anglorum and Herman's De Miraculis Sanctae Mariae Laudensis, which together provide the first certain evidence for a belief that Arthur was not actually dead and would at some point return.

Geoffrey of Monmouth[edit]

  • Prophetiae Merlini: Geoffrey presented a series of apocalyptic narratives as the work of the earlier Merlin who, until Geoffrey's book came out, was known as "Myrddin". The first work about this legendary prophet in a language other than Welsh, it was widely read — and believed — much as the prophecies of Nostradamus were centuries later; John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell note that the Prophetiae Merlini "were taken most seriously, even by the learned and worldly wise, in many nations", and list examples of this credulity as late as 1445.
  • Historia Regum Britanniae: the most important of Geoffrey's texts, historically speaking. After the Romans leave, Vortigern comes to power, and invites the Saxons under Hengist and Horsa to fight for him as mercenaries, but they rise against him, and Britain remains in a state of war under Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther Pendragon, assisted by the wizard Merlin. Uther's son Arthur defeats the Saxons so severely that they cease to be a threat until after his death. In the meantime, Arthur conquers most of northern Europe and ushers in a period of peace and prosperity that lasts until the Roman emperor Lucius Tiberius demands that Britain once again pay tribute to Rome. Arthur defeats Lucius in Gaul, but his nephew Modred seizes the throne in his absence. Arthur returns and kills Modred, but, mortally wounded, he is carried off to the isle of Avalon, and hands the kingdom to his cousin Constantine. With Arthur gone, the Saxons return, and become more and more powerful. The line of British kings continues until the death of Cadwallader, after which the Saxons become the rulers of Britain.
  • Vita Merlini: This is in part Geoffrey's retelling of the earlier Myrddin legend from Welsh tradition, but includes numerous other source materials as well, and includes elements of the tradition of saints' lives as well as the sort of encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world and the heavens then in vogue at Oxford. The work, Geoffrey's only known poem, was written in Latin verse (hexameter).

Welsh Arthurian romance[edit]

Each of these tales are contained within the modern Mabinogion collection, and are likely based on the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (though it is possible that they may have had a common Celtic source). See the above section on "The Three Romances" in The Mabinogion for details on these tales.

  • Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain
  • Peredur Son of Efrawg
  • Gereint Son of Erbin

Folklore[edit]

Mythical creatures[edit]

  • Adar Llwch Gwin, giant birds that understand human languages
  • Afanc, a lake monster (exact lake varies by story)
  • Ceffyl Dŵr, a water horse similar to the Kelpie
  • Cewri (Giants), such as Ysbaddaden Bencawr from Culhwch and Olwen, and Bendigeidfran from the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.
  • Coblynau, little people and mine spirits (like the Knocker (folklore))
  • Coraniaid, a mysterious race of beings who plagued the Island of Britain
  • Cŵn Annwn, hunting dogs of the Otherworld
  • Cyhyraeth, death spirit
  • Y Diawl (The Devil) who was said to have built various bridges in Wales (including Devil's Bridge, Ceredigion), and to appear to sinners in the form of a horned, black-faced shepherd leading a pack of dogs. Sometimes associated with the bobtailed black sow known as Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta.
  • Gwiddonod (Witches), old women who could cast spells over people and animals, ride broomsticks through the air, tell fortunes, and use charms to heal and cause diseases. They could take the form of a hare, and could only be killed with a silver bullet. Only Y Dyn Hysbys (The Wise Man) could undo the harm the cause.
  • Dreigiau (Dragons), the most famous being Y Ddraig Goch.
  • Y Dyn Hysbys (The Wise Man), or wizard. These could be clerics, men who learned about medicine and black magic from books, and those who claimed to inherit power from their families and thus could foresee the future, particularly on an Ysbrydnos, and give charms to ward off evil.
  • Gwyllgi, a large black dog that haunts lonely roads.
  • Gwyllion, a kind of spirit
  • Llamhigyn y Dŵr, a frog-bat-lizard hybrid
  • Morgens, water spirits
  • Plentyn Newid, the Welsh take on the Changeling creature.
  • Pwca, shapeshifting animal spirit
  • Tylwyth Teg, literally "the Fair Folk," the common name in Welsh for the fairy folk, inhabitants of the Otherworld
  • Ysbrydion (spirits), which are more likely to come in contact with humans on an Ysbrydnos or "spirit night" (see Calan Gaeaf, Calan Mai)

Folk narrative[edit]

Includes folk tales, legends, traditions and anecdotes. The cyfarwyddiaid (singular: cyfarwydd, "storyteller"), were members of the bardic order in Wales. The only historical cyfarwydd known by name is Bledri ap Cydifor ('Bledericus Walensis', 'Bleherus').

Folk tales and legends have also survived through retellings by common people. Storytelling could and does occur in many different forms: "gossip, games, dancing, and the reciting of riddles, tongue-twisters, nursery-rhymes, harp-stanzas, folk-songs and ballads."[6] Common occasions for telling folk narratives were the nosweithiau llawen (or "merry evenings," similar to a céilidh), nosweithiau gwau ("knitting nights"), and Calan Gaeaf (Winter's Eve).

Tales about animals with human characteristics[edit]

The most famous of these are the tales concerning the "Oldest Animals," in which a character gathers information from different animals until the oldest animal is located. Culhwch and Olwen lists the Blackbird of Cilgwri, the Stag of Rhedynfre, the Owl of Cwm Cowlyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, and the Toad of Cors Fochno. The Triad "The Three Elders of the World" lists several of the oldest birds.

Formula tales[edit]

Including cumulative tales and stories without end.

Humor about actual persons or types[edit]

Includes White Lie Tales, which are obviously and intentionally untrue. Common elements include the narrator's experiences in America, adventures while being carried on wings of a large bird, growing enormous vegetables, prowess at shooting around corners, ability to see over great distances. Famous recent authors in this genre are James Wade (Shemi Wad), Daniel Thomas (Daniel y Pant), Gruffydd Jones (Y Deryn Mawr) and John Pritchard (Siôn Ceryn Bach).

(Pseudo-)histories of notable figures[edit]

  • Arthur (see separate section above)
  • Twm Siôn Cati, often called the Welsh Robin Hood
  • The Lives of Saints, originally written in Latin, and usually stressing a male saint's conception, birth and childhood, while emphasizing a female saint's adolescence, virginity and sexual conflict (fleeing marriage or rape). These include the Life of St. David by Rhygyfarch, and the Life of Cadog by Lifris of Llancarfan. The MSS Cotton Vespasian Axiv, written around 1200, collects the lives of numerous saints. Another important collection is The Book of the Anchorite of Llanddewibrefi.

Local legends of historical or pseudo-historical figures[edit]

Includes Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy, a group of bandits who lived in Merioneth in the 16th century, mentioned in Thomas Pennant's Tours of Wales and other sources.

Place-name or topography tales[edit]

Includes onomastic lore, which explains place-names. One notable example comes from the Historia Britonum, in which the name 'Carn Cafal' is shown to come from a carn (or pile of stones) which mark the footprint of Arthur's dog Cafal.

Collectors of folk tales[edit]

  • Poet-Scholars: Rhys Meurig (Rice Merrick), George Owen of Henllys.
  • Antiquarians: Edward Lhuyd, the Morris Brothers of Anglesey, Iolo Morganwg.
  • Folklorists: Daniel Silvan Evans (Y Brython, 1858), Peter Roberts (Cambrian Popular Antiquities, 1815), W. Howells (Cambrian Supertitions, 1831), Isaac Foulkes (Cymru Fu, 1862), Wirt Sikes (British Goblins, 1880), Daniel Silvan Evans, John Jones and others (Ysten Sioned), Elias Owen (Welsh Folklore, 1896), Marie Trevelyan (Folklore and Folk Stories of Wales, 1909), J. Ceredig Davies (Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales, 1911).[7]

Voyage tales[edit]

  • Preiddeu Annwfn, in which Arthur sails to Annwn (the Otherworld) to retrieve a magic cauldron (possibly a predecessor to the Grail)
  • The Madoc legend, concerning a Welsh prince's discovery of America in 1170.

Travelogue[edit]

Gerald of Wales mentions numerous aspects of current Welsh mythology and folklore in his books Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) and Descriptio Cambriae (1194)

National histories[edit]

While the following works are considered histories, they recount what would become a common myth of origin for the Welsh.

Legacy of Welsh mythology in English literature[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Gruffydd, W. J. Rhiannon: An Inquiry into the Origins of the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi.
  2. ^ Triad 52. Rachel Bromwich associates the Gwair of this triad with the Gweir of Preiddeu, see Trioedd Ynys Prydein pp. 146–147 and 373–374.
  3. ^ Hutton, Ronald (2014). Pagan Britain. Yale University Press. p. 366. ISBN 978-0300197716. 
  4. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey (translator) (1987). The Mabinogion, p. 87. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
  5. ^ Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, pp. 284–285. University Of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.
  6. ^ Meic Stephens, The New Companion to the Literature of Wales, pp. 250.
  7. ^ a b Meic Stephens, The New Companion to the Literature of Wales.

External links[edit]